Author: kylieobrien1

About kylieobrien1

Gardener, hen-keeper, into plants, yoga and the good life. Journalist and editor by day.

Should you buy a cockerel?

Just as I was beginning to feel life was hardly worth living without hens, Kind Neighbour dropped round with a couple of names of people who sell Sussex breeds. One has Sussex hybrids, he said, but the other, in nearby Otterden, has purebreds. “Hybrids are all very well,” he added. “But really, why not think about purebreds? And maybe a cockerel – then you could start raising your own chicks.”


Elijah, the speckled Sussex cockerel

You looking at me? Elijah, the speckled Sussex cockerel, inspecting his new home


Ten minutes later I was on the phone to Otterden Lady. “Yes, I have plenty of brown Sussex, some light Sussex – my buff Sussex hens aren’t for sale, but I do have some Dorkings,” she said. “Irresistible,” I replied. Not so much the Dorkings (an ancient, rare and slightly lumpy looking breed, said to have been brought over by the Romans – mainly for meat rather than eggs), but the brown and red Sussex – yes, please.

“And what about a cockerel? Would you like a speckled Sussex boy?” Otterden Lady asked. “I haven’t seriously considered a cockerel; on balance, No,” I replied.

Next morning I navigated the lanes off the A251 to Otterden, an indeterminate place between Stalisfield and Charing. I was after hens. A cockerel? Noisy, aggressive, they don’t lay eggs, they eat a lot, so the wisdom goes. Who’d bother? And I don’t have time nor the expertise to raise chicks. Definitely not.

Otterden Lady was a revelation. An hour later I had chosen five brown Sussex hens… and the speckled cockerel, a fine young man – a year old – with white tipped feathers and green-black feathers. “He’s a lovely boy,” OL said, scooping him up. She stroked his wattles beneath his chin. “You can put a cockerel to sleep by gently pulling the wattles,” she said.

I was transfixed. He seemed friendly, almost docile. He lived in a large pen separate from the brown Sussex hens, but she said that there wouldn’t be a problem mixing him with the hens. Were they vaccinated? “No, you don’t need to vaccinate Sussex hens,” OL said. She advised taking them to the vet and antibiotics if a problem arose. And were their wings clipped? “Oh, no, Sussex hens can’t fly,” she said (at exactly that moment a feisty brown hen flew from one pen into another, and attacked with terrifying ferocity another hen. They can fly when they really, really want to… and hens can be shockingly aggressive).

Cockerel protecting his flock

Protective: Elijah the cockerel watches over his hens while they eat. He will wait until he thinks they’ve had enough before he tucks in


I helped catch the hens – not easy, even experts can be made to look complete arses chasing flapping squawking birds – packed them into cardboard boxes, and 20 minutes later arrived home. I noticed a few lice on a couple of them, so doused each with Livestock Louse Powder, and set them into the pen, with the main door closed while they settled in.

Elijah seemed the best name for a rather exotic looking creature. I’d like to call the hens Billy, Chrissie, Jean, Amelie and Mauresmo (in time for Wimbledon) but I can’t tell one from the other, so for now it is Elijah-and-the-hens.

For the first couple of days, even after I opened the door of the main pen, Elijah kept the hens inside. When one of them  wandered outside, he’d follow her and guide her back. He also made a dust bath for them, scratched around in the egg-laying nests to tempt them to lay eggs… and of course “treads” them, poultry-speak for mounting them, a tricky process that is not for the faint-hearted. More of that in my next blog.

Meanwhile, they are settling in nicely, and now laying two to three eggs a day.

MORE ON KEEPING A COCKEREL great forum, which includes tales of people who have kept ‘nasty SOBs’. always comes near the top of a google search for almost any hen-related issue. Some of the threads are more than a couple of years old but still relevant. what it says on the tin: very lively debate between the pro and anti cockerel contingents.




After the cull

To a celebratory birthday supper last night with friends who asked after the hens. The cull took place only a couple of days ago, so I haven’t told anyone yet. “How could you?” “But they all had names…” “You must be so sad,” they said.

Yes, of course I’m sad – and strangely unmoored without the daily routine of feeding them, locking them up at night, and just nipping out to see what they’re up to. But you can’t live with diseased hens. Sadder still is to see them sicken and die, and I can’t restock while whatever bug – Infectious bronchitis? Mycoplasma gallisepticum? Avian rhino tracheitis? is lurking around the coop. By the way, if you want to scare yourself, check out the poultry sites Poultry Keeper and Chicken Vet – and of course the Poultry Club, which list the various life-threatening bugs that attack hens.

Yesterday I rinsed down and sloshed Jeyes Fluid all around the feeders and the hen coop to disinfect everything, and have left the doors open to air it out. Here it is, the mighty hen palace (from Smiths Sectional, designed for



18 hens, although I have never had more than six at one time). The next job is to paint it with Cuprinol, which I hope will destroy the germs. At the very least it will keep me busy, and possibly help preserve it.

So yes, I miss them, Vindaloo and Tikka, Grable, Missie, Betty, Masala and Madam. But disloyal though it seems, I am already planning another visit to a hen breeder. The question is… hybrids, or pure breds? And crucially, is two weeks really enough time to clear this ghastly bug from the site?


There is a lively hen-keeping online community that’s worth tapping into – many in the US. My three favourites are Down the Lane, a friendly UK-based forum; Backyard Chickens (USA) and the rather prosaically named Success with Poultry – this link takes you to & Rules for Keeping hens, rule No 1, don’t name them. That, in my case, will never happen.








One thing a hen-keeper should never do

In March one of my legbars, Masala, fell ill, stopped laying, and – only days after I took her to the vet (Lady Dane, just outside Faversham) – went and died on me. Now the Lady Dane veterinary centre is fantastic and I love the receptionists, who always ask you the name of your pet – but a session there costs more than the bird itself.

So feeling a twit and a failure I decided the only remedy was to replace her – possibly with two birds. Legbars lay blue eggs, so they are pretty special. A carton of blue eggs makes a terrific present. Crested legbars also have wonderful topknots behind their combs, which makes them look like a dowager duchess. This beauty is Missie – more of her later.

photo (17)


But legbars are not easy to find. Dudley Mallett – of Highdown Poultry and where I bought my hybrids – used to breed legbars, but had retired. None of the people my hen-keeping friends recommended had any, so I chanced it. After a few hours browsing online I found a place within driving distance that had a couple of pullets. Were they vaccinated? “Oh, yes,” a jolly sounding woman said. The place rang a bell, but I was in a hurry. An hour later I chose an entrancing little POL legbar (Grable) and handsome Betty, the buff Sussex. Looking back I’m pretty sure it was the place the author, colleague and hen-keeper Martin Gurdon warned me against.

It was only when I arrived back home that I noticed Grable was sneezing and had a squeaky Marilyn Monroe-like voice. Was this a reaction to the oil-seed rape in full flower in the surrounding fields? Or dust from the new coop? Or something more sinister… Betty had black marks on her beak and seemed not quite with it. I took this to be stress from the move.

I don’t have a separate coop, so I let them run with the others that evening.

And that’s when it all started to go wrong. Grable, who was mercilessly bullied (especially by Missie) never got better. She wheezed and gurgled and struggled to breathe. I took her to Lady Dane. Chest infections can be picked up from anywhere said the vet. “Keep an eye on her. And try Mintamix Respiratory Conditioner.” Mintamix, which you drop into the drinking water, didn’t help. Grable grew weaker and thinner and finally my neighbour  R. put her down. A couple of weeks ago Missie (she’s there in the picture), started wheezing. She died on my lap just a few days ago. Betty also started sneezing, and took to laying eggs with no shells in the middle of the night. Then the fox took Vindaloo.

“Don’t be sentimental,” said R yesterday. “You can’t introduce more birds while the existing ones aren’t right. I’d do away with them all, clean out the coop, then wait a few weeks.” Kind R. wrung Betty and Madam’s necks, and I carried my last two hens to the top of the field to bury them.

I have to wait two weeks until I can restock. It feels like a long time.


If you are a newcomer, the best starting point is The Poultry Club , which lists approved hen breeders. And do read Martin Gurdon’s book Doing Bird. It is the best book I’ve ever read on hen-keeping.

It happened so fast

Wow! 9am, gazing out of the back door, I just caught sight of a blur of black feathers whip past the paddock gate. It was Vindaloo, the black rock hen, moving at speed. Here she is a couple of days ago, scaling my anti-hen defence – a bamboo cane across the top of the paddock gate that’s supposed to stop the chickens from power jumping into the garden where they are NOT allowed. It never stopped Vindie.

photo (15)


She’s always been an athletic bird. I bought her, with three other POL hybrid pullets last spring from Dudley Mallet in High Halden. So, Vindie moving at speed? I didn’t think too much about it.

Still, I wandered out, coffee in hand to see what was up. I could hear Madam, the bluebell – pictured here behind the legbar’s tail, and Betty the buff Sussex, breaking off their morning egg-laying song and clucking in alarm.


But no sign of Vindie. I opened the egg-laying boxes; a single egg, but no hen. Nothing round the back of the pen. I checked by the veg patch – and there, by the fence, lay a pile of black feathers. Just a few – so it was possible she had been caught, but got away not too badly harmed. I climbed behind the compost heap (where they love to hide) – nothing. A trail of feathers, leading to further up the paddock up to the hedge gave it all away; it must have been a fox dragging her off.

She’s the second hen taken by a predator, and it’s hard to describe the sense of loss. You learn how to take care of hens the hard way. It’s great to see them free-ranging around and about, but they’ll only ever be safe in a pen, and even then, it’s hard to ensure against a hungry fox.

I need to restock: with only two hens left I’m running low on eggs – and I’ll come to that next.